After years of rotting in Joliet, Les, a wrongfully imprisoned street legend known as “The Ghoul”, is released into a mad search through Chicago’s back alleys for the man who slaughtered his mother and robbed him of his soul. Aided by mysterious benefactors, he must delve beneath the city into a modern labyrinth of gutters whose tendrils have grown deep while he was gone. What unfolds is a desperate tale of brute force tragedy set in the supernatural underworld of Chicago, where heroes are reduced to horror-shows, villains dream of their own demise, and good and evil prove to be antiquated concepts.
Like Darren Aronofsky’s mother! and Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, Chicago Rot, from director Dorian Weinzimmer, is liable to polarize audiences with its surreal imagery and sometimes impenetrable plot.
Co-written by Weinzimmer, the film sees a man called Les (Brant McCrea, the other co-writer) being released from prison after being convicted for killing numerous people. Whilst inside, Les has been portrayed by the media as a deeply disturbed vigilante by the name of The Ghoul and now that he’s out, the public eagerly await to see what he’s going to do next. For Les, the choice is simple: find the man who killed his mother many years ago. Hot on his tail is Detective Dave Simmons (Dave Cartwright), a shambles of a man who wants to see Les back behind bars for killing his partner. Dave is the kind of guy who gets his gun taken away from him by a criminal without the making the least bit of effort.
From this simple premise, Chicago Rot leaps Shooting-Star-meme style into a genre-bending melody of surrealism and violence. What could have been a by-the-numbers grindhouse flick of two violent men in pursuit of each other, blossoms into a patchwork quilt of minotaurs, demons, aliens, and people sewing their victims flesh onto themselves. As a gothic singer pounds a piano on the back of a pick-up truck barreling down the highway in the opening credits, you will know very quickly if this film is for you or not.
McCrea gives a brilliant performance as Les/The Ghoul, drifting from one scene to the next, seemingly not disturbed by the sights he sees and the terrors he faces. It’s as if this has always been Les’ life, and now he’s just getting on with charging towards the final chapter with grim determination. And like any good hero, Les undergoes a transformation that’s more than just a switch in his ethics and personality. Fully bearded when we first meet him, McCrea sheds his facial hair as the film progresses. This doesn’t sound like much on paper, but to watch it is like a witnessing a butterfly emerging. When the clippers come out, we finally see the hate and rage that’s been bubbling inside of Les for so long.
As the sniveling detective, Cartwright is excellent as the man who was born to always be Les’ antithesis. He’s abused, derided and laughed at. If Les is a monument of strength and resilience, then Detective Dave Simmons is a totem to cowardice. In a way, stand both these men together and they display the potential outcomes of someone who chooses to let vengeance eat away at their soul. When push comes to shove, they will either stand tall or they’ll run for ever. Other nods of the hat must go to Shira Barber as Alex, Les’s girlfriend and the winner of 2017’s ‘Woman Who Has to Put Up with a Hell of A lot Sxxx’ award.
Not everything on show hits the mark. Whilst Weinzimmer’s direction is tight for the most, Chicago Rot is letdown by a finale that feels hurried and makes little sense when you try to map it out in your head. It’s the kind of smackdown you’d expect in a Marvel movie, not something of a higher artistic integrity than this. That said, the positive take away from all this is to show, once again, how Chicago Rot refuses to be pinned down to one particular set of tropes. It’s elusive and remains deliberately out of reach from definition.
See Chicago Rot, feel Chicago Rot. Let it wash over you like a bath filled with scuzzy, days old water. It will stain your clothes and penetrate your brain. It will refuse to let go of your senses and, even should you walk away from this brilliant odyssey into Chicago’s underbelly hating it, you’ll still be inclined to admit that it was at least an experience. No one is walking out of Chicago Rot alive and saying it was boring. No one.